When We Were Lovers
By Catherine Jordan
The shape in the corner shuffled. It smelt like static electricity and tasted like white noise.
Merle watched it like a hawk.
Now it was whimpering. Wheezing. Breaths through broken lungs. Occasionally, it would let out a choking noise, and play a few lines of Emily Dickenson’s The Soul Has Bandaged Moments. Backwards, sometimes.
Merle watched it. It watched back. Knuckles cracked and flexed. Too-long fingers – three knuckles, four knuckles. Five, six, seven. Too many. Flesh crept and teeth ground. Sawdust and static.
He averted his eyes. Stare too long, and the abyss gazes back. His mouth was filling up with ash. His mind was grey fog and radio static. The shape began to weep, great white-noise sobs like bones scraping along piano keys. It was a passable rendition of Elton John’s cover of Pinball Wizard, if Elton John had been less camp and had also been run through a combine harvester.
Merle blinked. He was crying as well. Oil-slick darkness, like pitch down his cheeks. It burnt when it touched skin. When it dried, his flesh felt cold. Clammy. He wiped it away.
The shape. The figure. It was fuzzy around the edges, like it had been cut out and stuck back in. Merle found his voice.
“What do you want,” he managed. “Please.”
And then the Windows failed – and then I could not see to see, the figure droned. Maybe it had a strong English accent. Maybe it had a New York accent. Maybe it spoke in fingernails being ripped off, one-two-three-pull. Jaws clacked. Knuckles clicked.
Merle looked down. The pistol was lying cold and unused. It lay between him and the figure. He looked back up.
Now. Now the figure – now the figure was shivering. Despite the movement, Merle could make out more of it. A nose. A forehead. Eyes. A neck. Brown skin. Too many knuckles. His mouth was filling with ash –
Merle turned away, like a ship turning in the night. He spat out the grey powder, letting it spill over his lips. It stank of pollution and oil and disinfectant and blood, dried and tired and cold. Well, the blood could have just been Merle. His nose had stared bleeding in the time he had been looking at the figure. He risked another look.
A suit. Black fabric. A tie, pulled too taut. Merle’s hands twitched, itching to straighten it. As he watched (out of the corner of his eyes, because the ash was still a threat) the figure let out a long, shuddering sigh. For a second, it flickered into a shape wearing a hospital gown. The sides were caked with sweat and blood. A red stain ran from the collar to the abdomen. It wheezed, and the suit returned.
The pistol gleamed. Merle blinked, crying again. He was getting too old for stuff like this.
The bedroom around them was half-destroyed, but that was normal. Merle had let it go to wrack and ruin when – when – when he had become the only inhabitant of it. The bed felt too big, too cold.
His eyes had snapped open at three in the morning, and had looked up at the figure wheezing over him. One of the knuckled hands had been reaching for his face.
He had reacted quickly. Now the figure was in the corner, and he was standing, shaking. The pistol glistened. The pistol gleamed.
He had always been paranoid, it had just gotten worse since the funeral. A man who sleeps with a machete is a fool every night but one.
The figure turned to him. Lips were trembling, eyes closing and opening. Yes, the figure had lips. And eyes. Maybe. Hopefully. It took a shambling step towards Merle – he went for he pistol. They tumbled over in a mess of limbs and bones and static and screaming.
Merle was slammed against the solid wood of the cabinet. It shook, destabilised. Empty cigarette packets and clothes rained down. The figure screeched, a sound like vinegar solidified. It was trapped under his kicking legs. Wherever he touched, his skin was going numb.
He pushed it away. It rolled, still screaming. Merle’s ears rang. Static, white noise. His head pulsed.
The pistol. It had gone tumbling under the cabinet. He stuck his hand in, reaching around – and then the figure stopped. Merle blinked.
It was hunched over, unnatural height contorted into a violent acute angle. Peering at the objects on the cabinet. It had stopped wheezing. Fingers trembled.
Merle sat up. He had to go for the pistol, to put a bullet in the figure’s head. But something in the expression – at least, he guessed it had an expression – made him uneasy.
It reached out. Pushed past the rubbish, the debris on the cabinet. Picked out a photo frame. The glass cracked slightly under the strength in those bulging knuckles. The hands. Merle’s eyes widened. One of the fingers was a stump, cut just before the first knuckle. The others dwarfed it.
It was the ring finger; there was a circular burn on the brown skin. The figure wasn’t paying attention. It was looking at the picture.
It was – Merle’s stomach dropped. Not that one. Not that. Please. It was all he had, all he had left of him –
The finger reached out its other hand, and pressed a too-knuckled finger against the face of Merle’s husband.
Tristan was grinning in the photo, his eyes bright and full of mischief. He had been beautiful on their wedding day, all suit jacket and laughter and joy and hope. Beautiful, perfect Tristan. Dead Tristan, cold three months in the grave.
Merle had gone through the house and burnt the other photos he had found of him; only this one he had kept. As a reminder, maybe. Of the way Tristan had looked before the last journey. Before the smoking chasis of the car. The way his corpse had been bent at unnatural angles, his fingers crushed and his skin gone red and grey and dead – his torso split like two halves in the night.
Merle gasped, light-headed. He hadn’t been breathing , overwhelmed by grief and memories. The figure was still staring, still focused on the photo. More pressure was being put on the frame. Glass began to cut into the image, the same way the windscreen had gone through Tristan in the crash.
The figure dropped the frame, the wood twisted and the image ripped to shreds. Merle let out a sound like the universe being blown up like a balloon and then being released. The figure swung to look at him. He winced at the taste of ash in his mouth. He still couldn’t look it in the eye.
It let out a rattled hiss. A counterpoint to his shock. Bent closer. Merle flinched as the hand reached out; pushed his hair away from his neck. The figure tugged at the silver chain that he constantly wore. The two circles of gold strung on it glinted.
The figure pulled; the chain broke like hot butter. It held the two rings in its palm. The flesh below was fuzzy in Merle’s vision.
He was crying. Why was he crying? Merle tried to brush the tears away, but his fingers wouldn’t work. Nothing worked. Everything was dead. He looked up. The figure was staring down at him. White noise was filling up his brain and the ash was creeping into his mouth.
Merle looked up, and stared into the eyes of Tristan; beautiful, brilliant, and very, very dead.